Trump’s nu­clear au­thor­ity di­vides sen­a­tors alarmed by his ‘volatile’ be­hav­ior

The Washington Post - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY KAROUN DEMIR­JIAN karoun.demir­jian@wash­post.com

Sen­a­tors try­ing to pre­vent Pres­i­dent Trump from launch­ing an un­pro­voked nu­clear at­tack were stymied Tues­day, af­ter a panel of ex­perts warned them against rewrit­ing laws to re­strain a com­man­der in chief many worry is im­pul­sive and un­pre­dictable enough to start a dev­as­tat­ing in­ter­na­tional cri­sis.

Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bob Corker (RTenn.), who has said Trump’s threats to global ri­vals could put the coun­try “on the path to World War III,” be­gan Tues­day’s ses­sion warn­ing of the in­her­ent dan­ger in a sys­tem where the pres­i­dent has “sole au­thor­ity” to give launch or­ders there are “no way to re­voke.”

By the time Corker emerged from the hear­ing — the first to ad­dress the pres­i­dent’s nu­clear au­thor­ity in over four decades — he was at a loss for what to do next. “I do not see a leg­isla­tive so­lu­tion today,” Corker told re­porters. “That doesn’t mean, over the course of the next sev­eral months, one might not de­velop, but I don’t see it today.”

Trump’s shift­ing pos­ture on how to ad­dress nu­clear threats has made law­mak­ers in both par­ties un­easy, par­tic­u­larly as the cri­sis over North Korea’s am­bi­tions es­ca­lates.

Repub­li­cans and Democrats crit­i­cized Trump this sum­mer for promis­ing to use “fire and fury” against the regime in Pyongyang if it made any more nu­clear threats against the United States; more re­cently, they have ques­tioned him for tak­ing to Twit­ter to call North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “short and fat.”

“We are con­cerned that the pres­i­dent of the United States is so un­sta­ble, is so volatile, has a de­ci­sion-mak­ing process that is so quixotic, that he might order a nu­clear strike that is wildly out of step with U.S. in­ter­ests,” said Sen. Chris Mur­phy (D-Conn.), one of sev­eral sen­a­tors ex­plor­ing how to pre­vent the pres­i­dent from launch­ing a first nu­clear strike with­out the per­mis­sion of Congress.

For­mer gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials warned Tues­day that chang­ing the law to pre­vent the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion from do­ing some­thing rash could dra­mat­i­cally back­fire.

“If we were to change the de­ci­sion-mak­ing process be­cause of a dis­trust of this pres­i­dent, that would be an un­for­tu­nate de­ci­sion for the next pres­i­dent,” said Brian McKeon, who served as act­ing un­der­sec­re­tary for pol­icy at the De­fense Depart­ment dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“It has im­pli­ca­tions for the de­ter­rent, it has im­pli­ca­tions for the ex­tended de­ter­rent . . . it has im­pli­ca­tions for our own mil­i­tary men and women,” said re­tired Gen. C. Robert Kehler, the com­man­der of U.S. Strate­gic Com­mand from 2011 to 2013.

The ex­perts at­tempted to re­as­sure sen­a­tors that there are pro­cesses in place to en­sure that many sea­soned mil­i­tary and le­gal ex­perts re­view nu­clear or­ders be­fore they are acted upon. Kehler, who led the agency re­spon­si­ble for nu­clear launches, in­sisted on sev­eral oc­ca­sions that the mil­i­tary could refuse to act on any nu­clear launch order it de­ter­mined to be il­le­gal — and that there is time to push back against a pres­i­dent in any sit­u­a­tion, apart from re­spond­ing to an im­mi­nent at­tack.

That ex­pla­na­tion did not sat­isfy com­mit­tee Democrats, who in­sisted that Trump’s be­hav­ior, and what they iden­tify as his habit of nom­i­nat­ing and hir­ing ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials who de­fer to his world­view, means any in­ter­nal re­sis­tance “does not of­fer real re­sis­tance if the pres­i­dent ab­so­lutely in­sists upon his way,” said Sen. Ed­ward J. Markey (D-Mass.).

“It should be the con­gres­sional pre­rog­a­tive to de­clare nu­clear war,” added Markey, who has writ­ten a bill to ban the pres­i­dent from be­ing able to launch a first nu­clear strike against North Korea with­out the au­tho­riza­tion of Congress.

Only three other Democrats have co-spon­sored it.

With no clear leg­isla­tive path for­ward to as­sert con­gres­sional con­trol over the pres­i­dent’s nu­clear im­pulses, sen­a­tors are split­ting along party lines.

“There are le­git­i­mate dis­putes when it comes to the power of the pres­i­dent and the power of Congress,” said Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho).

He warned that “ev­ery sin­gle word that’s ut­tered in this hear­ing is go­ing to be an­a­lyzed in Pyongyang,” and might lead the North Korean gov­ern­ment to ques­tion the United States’ re­solve to de­ter the regime’s nu­clear ag­gres­sion.

Democrats ar­gued that Trump is al­ready con­fus­ing North Korea about the United States’ in­ten­tions through his tweets.

“Doesn’t it also sug­gest it’s im­por­tant for the com­man­der in chief to also be cau­tious in how he talks about this is­sue, so there is not a mis­cal­cu­la­tion on the part of our ag­gres­sors who would do us harm about what the real in­tent here is?” Sen. Jeanne Sha­heen (D-N.H.) asked the ex­pert panel.

“I would be very con­cerned about a mis­cal­cu­la­tion based on con­tin­u­ing use of his Twit­ter ac­count,” McKeon an­swered.

WIN MCNAMEE/GETTY IMAGES

Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Chair­man Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) leads the first hear­ing on pres­i­den­tial nu­clear au­thor­ity in over four decades.

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